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Hittin’ Season #541: Finishing the Phillies roster with the new luxury tax

The Phils have some additional room under the luxury tax now, so how might they spend it?

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Major League Baseball’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement is a wide ranging document that addresses not only the economics of the sport, but the very structure of the way the game is played.

In this deal you’ll find bonus pools for pre-arbitration eligible players, an increase in minimum salary, limits in how many times a player can be sent down to the minors and back in a season, an expanded playoff field, a universal designated hitter, the potential creation of an international draft tied to the elimination of the qualifying offer in free agency, and so much more.

But for Phillies fans, there is no more important topic that the “competitive balance tax,” otherwise known as the luxury tax, otherwise known as the sport’s soft salary cap.

There are still penalties for teams that go over the tax, with increasing penalties for franchises that exceed it by more than $20 million and another tier for $40 million. The new CBA, seemingly aimed at the wildly crazy owner of the Mets Steve Cohen, attaches even harsher penalties for teams that go more than $60 million over the tax, an attempt to prevent to so-called “rich” owners from outspending the “poor” owners.

For the Phils, the tax has acted as a hard cap throughout its history. Last year, the tax was set at $210 million and, as part of their compromise agreement, owners and players agreed to increase this year’s tax number to $230 million.

Say what you will about John Middleton and the rest of Phils’ ownership, but they have always been willing to spend money on players and, even though they’ve never gone over the tax and likely won’t start now, they do bump right up against it. This year will likely be no different, which is why the luxury tax figures were the single most important topic of discussion during the lockout for Phils fans. It means Middleton and president Dave Dombrowski will have an additional $20 million to spend on players before the Home Opener on April 8.

According to Spotrac, the Phillies enter this upcoming transaction frenzy with a luxury tax payroll of nearly $179 million, leaving them with about $51 million to play with.

You should not expect the Phillies to be in the hunt for any of the top-tier shortstops, specifically Carlos Correa, nor should you expect them to shock the world and go after first baseman Freddie Freeman. While either of these players would be a huge boon to the roster, both could command well over $30 million a season, with $35-40 million possible. The Phils have too many holes to pay one player that kind of money and still stay under the tax.

The Phillies need a left fielder and center fielder, additional bullpen help, a bench bat, and perhaps another low-end starting pitcher. Multiple reports indicated Dombrowski had shown serious interest in Kyle Schwarber, who MLB Trade Rumors predicted would be about $17.5 million per season, giving them about $33.5 million left in tax space. Nick Castellanos is predicted to get about $23 million per season, which would leave the team with another $28 million under the tax. Kris Bryant would be the most expensive, again per MLB Trade Rumors, at $26.7 million a season, with about $24.3 million left to spend.

Next, a center fielder. If the Phillies pull off a trade for Kevin Kiermaier, another hot rumor before the transaction freeze, that would eat up about $9 million in luxury tax salary. Should the Phils trade for his teammate, Manuel Margot, that would cost $5 million against the tax. Acquiring youngsters like Cedric Mullins or Bryan Reynolds would be ideal, but it’s unlikely the Phillies have the minor leaguers to entice the Pirates or Orioles to accept their offer, and it’s also unlikely Dombrowski would be willing to trade two of their three top prospects to bring one of them in.

The Phillies undoubtedly need some more bullpen help, unless you feel 100% confident in Corey Knebel, Jose Alvarado, Sam Coonrod and Connor Brogdon nailing down the 7th, 8th and 9th innings every night. Kenley Jansen is predicted to make about $13 million a season over two seasons and would provide the Phils with a certain closer in ‘22 and ‘23. And while cheaper options like Joe Kelly, Andrew Chafin, Alex Colome, Mychal Givens, and Collin McHugh might not be true lockdown closers, they are established veterans who would provide Joe Girardi with far more confidence late in games.

Finally, an upgrade at third base or shortstop would be great, but the team figures to give Alec Bohm another full year to figure things out, and one would imagine Didi Gregorius would return as shortstop if Bryson Stott is unable to win the job in spring training. So adding another starting pitcher to the mix, especially in light of visa problems with Ranger Suarez and Zach Eflin’s uncertain timeline to return from injury, would be wise.

Arms like Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw or even Danny Duffy are unlikely, but what about a bounceback candidate like 29-year-old Zach Davies, who was awful with the Cubs last year (5.78 ERA with a league-high 85 walks) but in prior seasons had been quite productive? He should come for a very cheap deal. Michael Pineda would be serviceable as a back-of-the-rotation starter (3.62 ERA in 21 starts for Minnesota last year). He made $10 million last year, so he may be too pricey, but not if you go cheap in center field or in the ‘pen. Maybe you take a chance on Chris Archer’s return to health?

Oh, and bring back Brad Miller for another season on the bench for $3-4 million. That would do.

If the Phillies signed Schwarber, Jansen, Miller and Pineda and traded for Kiermaier, they would probably spend close to $50 million on those four players. Same if you went with Castellanos, Kiermaier, Kelly, Givens, and Archer. Dombrowski would want to leave himself some wiggle room for in-season moves, so perhaps the ideal number to spend over the next couple weeks is more in the $45-47 million range.

That said, those are the kinds of player combinations the Phillies should be able to swing with an extra $20 million burning a hole in John Middleton’s pocket.

Man, spending other people’s money is easy! On the latest edition of Hittin’ Season, I broke down all the ins and outs of the new labor deal, and what it means for the Phils moving forward. Make sure to check it out!